Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpIn politics today, he who controls the website controls the debate.

Or so it seemed last week when the network of Arlington parents with kids in the H-B Woodlawn “hippie high school” program experienced a strangely unilateral airbrushing of their portion of the school’s online platform.

Suddenly vanished on Friday were three current online documents presenting arguments parents had assembled to question a plan Arlington Public Schools is considering (but has nowhere near finalized) to address countywide overcrowding by moving H-B’s progressive program out from its home of 36 years in the Stratford building.

Not likely to go over well in a community packed with vocal and professionally sophisticated consumers of education.

The spooky move started when Woodlawn Principal Frank Haltiwanger got a call Thursday from the APS communications department saying the “advocacy documents” on the website violated policy. After the principal relayed the decision to leaders of the parent advisory committee, the parents hurled themselves into a plan to comply by moving documents – which included research summaries on small schools and letters to the school board on its capital improvement program – to a private website.

But before the parents’ webmaster could act, an invisible hand at APS deleted the documents.

The parents quickly reached out to their liaison, School Board member Emma Violand-Sanchez. “I was deeply concerned as soon as I heard the documents were removed without any consultation, the first time I’ve heard” of such a thing, she told me Sunday. “The parents’ community and leadership have been very transparent about discussing the issues and offering alternatives,” she said. She noted that Superintendent Patrick Murphy immediately contacted the parents to say he is looking into what happened.

Parents’ committee co-chair Joyce Kyle told me, “We feel it’s so wrong, and everyone’s upset. It seems the school is being singled out.” She noted that as recently as early February, APS consultant and longtime administrator Meg Tuccillo had invited parents to offer ideas for the More Seats for More Students process. “How else are you going to engage the parents when, after they engage, you take down” their materials? Kyle asked.

PTAs at Yorktown and Washington-Lee high schools regularly include frank debate on their websites, Kyle notes. Indeed, W-L leaders over the weekend put out a letter of support for the Woodlawn parents, saying, “We believe it is vital for our membership to have access to those documents in order to be informed about this vital issue. We would react negatively to any move by APS to censor them.”

“It’s heavy-handed and disturbing, especially coming from a board that espouses openness and participation,” says Meredith Wadman, vice-chair of the HB PAC. “It leaves the impression their minds are already made up.”

A possible clue to the school system’s motive lies in a recent official summary of community feedback on the search for solutions to overcrowding. “Although all feedback acknowledges the value added by H-B Woodlawn’s unique and innovative programming,” it said, “many community members expressed concern that H-B supporters are dominating the larger conversation despite its enrollment accounting for a small portion of APS’s overall student population.” One speaker noted, “More than half of tonight’s questions were from HB proponents. … The guys handing out microphones should limit such repetition.”

Despite multiple inquiries, my regular sources at Arlington Public Schools declined to explain the decidedly untransparent situation.